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Like mist and fog, water is a subject that deserves it’s own consideration compositionally. With the exception of very still lakes and ponds, one of the things that makes water “look like water” to us is the way that it moves. We can’t present this movement in a still image to a viewer directly. Instead, we have to translate it into a still image by making an exposure; and we use a variety of controls such as shutter speed and composition to help communicate a sense of that motion.
When we want to capture a sense of movement in water there are several things to keep in mind. Shutter speed has a significant effect-a waterfall, cascade or even surf against a coastline will have a very soft, gentle feel if we use a long exposure. Faster exposures will stop individual droplets in air, creating a greater sense of energy. Shutter speed isn’t the only thing to keep an eye on, though. The way we compose the path of water through a scene can also affect how viewers experience water moving through a scene. Where possible, try and make it easy for the viewer’s eye to trace along the lines of the water’s path. Your images will (all other things being equal) be more effective if the visual flow of the water isn’t interrupted by things that block the view of the water. Diagonals and S-curves can also create an additional sense of motion.
My early Trillium Falls images demonstrate this. Taken on the same day, a few minutes apart, they both enjoy a really interesting subject and spectacular color. What makes them different is their composition. Despite the similarities, Trillium Falls II is by far the more popular of the two images; it is in fact my largest selling image to date. (Small matted prints of this image make great Christmas presents!) Were I to edit that shoot today, I’d probably leave Trillium Falls I on the editing-room floor. That’s not that I is a bad image, it’s simply that II is more effective, and the greatest reason it’s more effective (I believe) is that the flow of water through the waterfall is less interrupted in II than in I.
Still water is an entirely different photographic animal. If you want to really emphasize the stillness of a body of water, you’ll want to avoid the lines, curves, diagnoals and other movement cues we used above. Often uninterrupted expanses of water can work well for this.
Very smooth water surfaces can take on a mirror-like surface, which can be an interesting source of reflections. To get the best “mirror-like” reflections, you’ll want not only completely smooth water, but also a shallow viewing angle, which puts some practical constraints on your compositions. Looking straight down into a still lake you’ll typically be able to see a lot of what’s underneath. It is when you look farther out into the lake that the reflections become more dominant. It’s possible (and sometimes even interesting) to make use of this effect, to show a little bit of “what’s underneath” and ‘what’s reflected” in different parts of the same scene, as I have in Bush Skeleton. (Polarizers also have an effect on how mirror-like a water surface will appear.)
Because of its transparency, its reflectiveness and its movement, water is an interesting and unusual part of the compositional playbook.